Writing Advice

  • Avoid this location issue in your novel

    Avoid this location issue in your novel

    In my last post, I talked about how easy it is to research distant locations online. This leads me to a problem I’ve sometimes seen when writers include more than one location in their novel. It happens when you write about places you know very well alongside locations you hardly know at all.

    One example is Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and its sequels. The first book is a huge 1000+ page novel that covers a lot of characters, a long span of time, and a few locations.

    It’s a hugely ambitious novel and can sweep the reader up for days on end. However, Rice’s descriptions of New Orleans and San Francisco were so powerful, detailed, and evocative, that her briefer Scottish and French sections seemed to almost retreat into a fog by comparison. (Scotland appears in other parts of the series too. Again, I found it unconvincing.)

    Rice really knows the two American locations very well. To be fair, the historical backstory was told in a way that probably didn’t favour the same detailed descriptions.

    But if she’d only vaguely described New Orleans and San Francisco, the contrast would have been less obvious. Yet one of The Witching Hour’s strengths was her atmospheric and haunting descriptions of New Orleans. The city was a memorable character in its own right.

    Perhaps others reading the book and its sequels didn’t notice the contrast in detail. Perhaps it was more obvious to me because I lived in one of the other countries. But I had exactly the same reading experience with another writer.

     

    A tale of three cities

    This second published author wrote a novel set in three cities – one in Scotland, one in England, and one on the European mainland.

    The European capital was strangely lacking in detail compared to the other two. It felt like this city was literally in darkness throughout the novel. Indeed, the character walked around at night for plot reasons, but since street lights exist, there was no excuse for the lack of visual detail.

    It felt as if the writer had perhaps paid a brief visit there at most. The observations were like that of a tourist.

    Again, this writer lived in one of the locations which she knew very well. She also wrote about it very well. The foreign location, therefore, paled in comparison, even though a decent amount of the book was set there.

    When writing about familiar and unfamiliar settings in the same novel, it’s best to avoid this location issue. Therefore, you need to ensure your locations are balanced and equally well-drawn. This means research.

    This doesn’t mean you can’t set a story in a place you know well and a place you don’t. But it does mean that you’re going to have to work on researching the unfamiliar location so that the two are equally well-drawn. Particularly if they occupy fairly equal proportions of your book, which was not true in Rice’s case. New Orleans was always going to be the star of the book.

    But what are you looking for when it comes to researching an unfamiliar place?

    Research, research, research

    In my previous blog, I talked about using estate agents/realtors, Google Street View, etc, to get a sense of an area. There’s also YouTube, where you’ll possibly find videos people have shot in the area. You can also search for bloggers who live in your location, to learn something about the daily life there. Or follow residents on Twitter, etc.

    I’d also recommend reading some history books about the area. A city’s history is its recorded memory. It influences the present and the people who live there.

    Of course, in a lot of novels, location is less important. But when you’re using familiar and unfamiliar settings, try not to leave your reader feeling that one is in beautiful sharp focus, while the other is a blur.

  • Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project

    Why authors benefit from a 365 photo project
    Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project

    Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project

    Many years ago, I embarked on my first 365 photography project. At the time, I didn’t have my Nikon, just a digital camera with a less impressive megapixel count. I’d seen 365 projects on LiveJournal. So, I decided to do my own. I have since completed three – two 365s and a 366 (leap year). And one important lesson I learned is how writers benefit from these 365 photo projects.

    Immediately, I began looking at the world in a different way, constantly attentive to small and previously overlooked details. Like beautiful old stonework with moss growing in the cracks. It reminded me of the knitting designer Kaffe Fassett who used walls as inspiration in his older work.

    Anything was a potential subject. Including the pot drawer in the kitchen. Late one night, needing to take my photo fast, I opened the pot drawer and snapped the pots in there.

    In a year where I took much better photos, which languish now on some old machine, this is one that stays in my mind. Shiny pots with annoying finger marks, the curving metal distorting my reflected face.

    So if pots ever appeared in a story, I could have a character who longs to erase every last one of those finger marks. Maybe they’re a perfectionist, or maybe they start polishing when they’re stressed. A small detail, but a quirk that helps flesh out a character.

    Writers need to be present in the world and notice the small details. And with mobile phone cameras, a regular photo project is easier than ever.

    How to get started

    If you’ve never engaged in a regular photo project, you don’t have to wait until the beginning of next year to start. Choose a starting date – the beginning of a month, or even your birthday – and work from there. If you want to give it a try, here are some suggestions:

    • Decide on a time period and stick to it – a year, 90 days, whatever.
    • Don’t fixate on taking the perfect photo – that’s not the point.
    • Don’t fixate on the best equipment – whatever fits in your pocket is best.
    • Be constantly attentive for a photo opportunity – study your surroundings.
    • Just about any object is a potential subject – including spilled refuse.
    • Don’t just look for attractive subjects.
    • Try taking your photo from an unusual angle.
    • Keep a file of your photos or post them somewhere.
    • Categorise them so you can find a subject easily – insects on flowers, etc.

    Ultimately, the point of this project is to get you to observe the world around you in ways that can be used in your writing. It’s not about writing long descriptive passages, but describing things in a more evocative or unusual way, even if it’s just a phrase here or a sentence there.

    If you haven’t tried this before, give it a go. You can even try it for a month – which is a shorter commitment.

    One warning I’d give is that with projects like this, you might get off to an enthusiastic start and then find yourself flagging. It becomes an annoying task some days, but I strongly recommend you push through. 

    As writers we often live in our heads, not noticing the world around us. But if we want to better represent that world, we need to pay more attention.

    Check out these other blog posts:

    Avoid this location issue in your novel

    Researching your novel’s locations online